A lot of people are giving Bristol Palin the side-eye about her recent, face-changing jaw surgery and whether it was “medically necessary.” I get why people are making fun of her. Bristol’s not always a very sympathetic figure, what with the campaigning for abstinence-only education and being related to the polarizing Sarah. But she’s not necessarily lying.
Based on what she’s said about her surgery, I think I had the same procedure. Obviously, I’m not her doctor, so I don’t know for sure. But when I was sixteen, I went under the knife for five hours and woke up with a different face. Everyone had a reaction: some positive, some negative, but all of them unavoidable. And I was just some high school kid in Texas.
I’d been a brace face for years. My parents diligently took me to the orthodontist week after week to get my elastics changed-yes, I was that girl who sported festive seasonal colors. When my doctor suddenly retired, though, I was left with a massive overbite. When I smiled, you could see several centimeters of my gums. I once got a gum sunburn. That peeled.
It turns out that for all those years, my orthodontist had just been changing my elastics, not fixing my developing jaw problem. By the time he retired, my teeth were beyond the help of braces. My jaw bones had finished growing. If your molars don’t line up, chewing slowly wears away your mis-matched teeth. Poor alignment contributes to TMJ and other jaw problems. A bad bite can cause a lot of chronic pain.
I went to see the oral surgeon. He planned to saw off my top jaw, slice away a few millimeters of bone, then bolt it back on. Overbite fixed. He was also going to saw off my chin, push it forward a few millimeters, then bolt it back on. I was confused: Why was that part necessary?
My mother was instantly defensive. “It’s technically cosmetic,” she told me. “But it just puts your chin in the position it would’ve been in if you didn’t have an overbite. The surgeon says it will make your face more balanced.” And who wants an unbalanced face?
I did-or at least, I was happy with mine. I was convinced that my weird overbite was part of who I was, that my gummy smile was my Audrey-hood. Changing it meant ceding control to someone who knew better. My parents convinced me that if I was on board for the overbite fix-which, once the doctor explained the problems I’d face in the future, I was-then I had to trust him on the chin fix, too.
After the surgery, I looked like a balloon with eyes. The swelling left me unrecognizable. My boyfriend immediately dumped me, weeks before the homecoming dance. Every day, as the puffiness faded, I looked at myself in the mirror. Was this my new face? Was this? By the time I had healed, three weeks later, I’d almost forgotten what I had looked like before. This was my new face. My new fake chin. My ex called to re-invite me to the dance, apologizing for his haste.
I like the way I look now. But there’s a notch on the side of my chin where the bones never quite knit together, and whenever I run my thumb along it, I think of what I might’ve looked like without the chin surgery: more like my brother, more like the rest of my family. More natural, perhaps. Or is nature out the window once you break out the bone saw?
I guess my point is that the line between “cosmetic surgery” and “medically necessary surgery” isn’t quite as stark as it might seem. Did Bristol “need” to have her chin fixed? Did I? I don’t know. I still feel weird guilt about my plastic surgery chin, but it’s a decision I can’t change now. When I look in the mirror, I see me. This new face has grown with me, and now it’s mine.
Whatever work Bristol had done, for whatever reason, let’s give the girl a break. A new face is strange to live with.